Golf always has had an uncanny ability to reward its greats with just one more.
Jack Nicklaus had his in 1986, when Greg Norman inexplicably shanked his approach on the 72nd hole at the Masters to give him his 18th, and final, major win.
Tiger Woods had his one more in 2019 when he claimed No.15 despite more than a decade of personal and professional turmoil.
On Monday (AEST), amid a frenzied gallery at Kiawah Island, Phil Mickelson had his one more, too.
But it’s Mickelson’s unbelievable PGA Championship triumph over more the seven kilometres of gruelling, wind-beaten South Carolinian fairways that changes what we knew about the majors.
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Since Woods revolutionised the game in the 90s, only a particular type of player has been able to win a major, a great of the game, or otherwise.
Typically, they’ve been the big-hitters, great ball strikers, clinical putters, gritty scramblers, or a combination of all of the above. Players who have been in the mix to win recently. Players who at least have shown a semblance of form.
Exclusively, they’ve been players under the age of 50.
Mickelson fits into none of those categories in 2021.
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He missed the cut in six of the 14 events he had played in the 2021 season before the PGA Championship.
His best finish? A tie for 21st at April’s Masters.
His last win on the PGA Tour was the Pebble Beach Pro-Am in February 2019, which was one of just two titles since his 2013 Open Championship triumph.
The only faint sign of competitiveness he had shown was his seven-under opening round at the Wells Fargo Championship two weeks ago. Even that was followed by blowout scores of 75, 76 and 76.
Meanwhile, he wasn’t ranking higher than 50th (driving distance, 301.5 yards) in any key performance metric this season.
199th for driving accuracy. 133rd for greens in regulation. 122nd in putting. 195th in scrambling.
Not even Mickelson’s colleagues had faith in him.
Asked about Mickelson’s chances of staying competitive throughout the weekend, Joel Dahmen told reporters: “I mean, 36 holes is a lot of golf.
“I’m rooting for him, it’d be an incredible story. Given his last three or four years, whatever it’s been — should I poke the bear and he can read this? I would be surprised if he could keep it together for 36 holes out here.”
World No.3 Jon Rahm dismissed Mickelson’s title credentials as some sort of joke after he shot four-under on Kiawah Island’s brutal back nine in the first round.
“You finish with five really, really difficult holes, but by that point you might have even gotten some confidence in the swing and you can finish it strong. Hey, Phil shot four-under on the back nine so anything is possible,” Rahm said.
And yet, Mickelson holds the Wanamaker Trophy tonight.
He turns 51 next month — old enough to be 27-year-old Bryson DeChambeau’s dad.
The triumph makes him golf’s oldest major winner, and surely one of the most unlikely.
The record previously belonged to Julius Boros who won the same event in 1968 at 48 years and four months old.
How Mickelson pieced together four rounds to destroy a chasing pack, led by four-time major winner Brooks Koepka, will go down as one of the game’s greatest mysteries.
Mickelson claimed at the trophy presentation that he never gave up believing he could win again on Tour, saying: “This is just an incredible feeling because I believed it was possible, but everything was saying it wasn’t.
“I hope others find that inspiration. It might take extra work to maintain physically, or the skills, but, gosh, is it worth it. I’m appreciative of me holding this Wanamaker Trophy.”
Only he knows if that’s all true.
Former Open Championship winner and Golf Channel analyst, Justin Leonard, ranks Mickelson’s sixth-major as more unlikely than Woods’ 15th, which was claimed after scandals, four back surgeries and a DUI in an 11-year wait.
“This felt even more unlikely to me because of the venue — this golf course is so difficult and unforgiving,” Leonard said. “And also because of the state of Phil’s game. He showed no form coming here.”
He added: “I know he’ll sit here and tell us he felt good about his game and everything that was going on, but I’m not sure how you could.
“It was remarkable.”
The win produced a mixture of disbelief, nostalgia and inspiration among Mickelson’s peers, including those who doubted the miracle mid-tournament.
“I’m going to be honest and say I wouldn’t think it would be the type of golf course he would be excelling at,” Rahm said. “But once again he’s shown why he’s a Hall of Famer and why he’s the second-best player in a generation of many talents.”
Koepka said Mickelson’s win gives him hope that he can still be competitive when he’s 50, while fellow runner-up, Oosthuizen, said: “It was like the Phil I remember when I just turned pro.
“It wasn’t easy with the wind and he kept calm. It’s unbelievable, and great stuff,” Oosthuizen said.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
For those desperate to make some sense of it all, you may need to start believing in karma.
Even as a five-time major winner, there was a feeling Mickelson had been short-changed a title.
Mickelson put together one of the all-time major performances at the 2016 Open at Royal Troon, where he carded 63, 69, 70 and 65; 11 shots better than the next player.
And it still wasn’t enough to win the Claret Jug, thanks to a scarcely believable 20-under tournament by Henrik Stenson, who has only won once on the PGA Tour since.
It took nearly five more years for the stars to align to give Mickelson another chance at winning his sixth major.
Koepka, historically one of the game’s coolest customers on a major Sunday, needed two late birdies to salvage a two-over 74 in the final round.
DeChambeau, the needle-moving world No.2 who was lurking heading into the final day, suffered a back nine meltdown on his way to a five-over 77.
Spieth, a three-time major winner who has recently rediscovered his best, never got things going with a two-over par tournament.
Nor did Rory McIlroy at five-over.
Meanwhile, world No.1 Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas, Xander Schauffele all missed the cut.
Search for some sense all you like, but the truth is Mickelson’s win doesn’t make any.
The true beauty in the miracle, however, is that it simply doesn’t have to.
What happens now is anyone’s guess, including Mickelson’s.
“This might be my last win,” he conceded.
“But I also might go on a bit of a run.”